Primal reasons to hear 'Carmina Burana' by Columbia Pro Cantare

Howard County Times

German composer Carl Orff's “Carmina Burana” has been an audience favorite ever since it premiered in 1937. Based on a 13th-century Latin poem, this scenic cantata has a primal energy that always hits listeners in a visceral way. Indeed, Columbia Pro Cantare has done it several times over the years.

“It's in the top-five list of pieces that people want to hear,” said Columbia Pro Cantare music director Frances Motyca Dawson, whose group is doing it again on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School.

“Orff felt that it was important to write music that would be highly accessible to audiences,” Dawson added. “There is an elemental rhythmic drive that’s hypnotic. That’s why it is still a staple in global choral literature.”

“Carmina Burana” is a choral piece with orchestral accompaniment, including the often-performed smaller ensemble version that Columbia Pro Cantare will be doing. However, Orff originally termed it a scenic cantata, intending for dance and theatrical elements to also be part of the performance.

Indeed, Dawson recalled that the Columbia Pro Cantare once did a collaborative performance with the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the Columbia Festival of the Arts in which the musical performance was coordinated with the dancers' movements.

However it is performed, “Carmina Burana” is a musically-intriguing piece. One reason is that Orff looked back to Renaissance and early Baroque composers such as William Byrd and Claudio Monteverdi for inspiration, while also looking to composers of his own time such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith for stylistic influence. Just think about the earthy, dance-evocative nature of Stravinsky’s early compositions and you can see how Orff wanted to write modern music that was in touch with ancient urges.

In career terms, Orff (1895-1982) continued to mine old sources for new music. He looked back to ancient Greek sources, for instance, to compose such later pieces as “Antigonae” (1949), “Oedipus the Tyrant"”(1958) and “Prometheus”(1968).

For the upcoming Columbia Pro Cantare performance, Dawson intends to go for that propulsive, elemental quality. And while the performance will not have the theatrical elements that Orff loved, Dawson said she intends to have lighting effects and possibly slide images that will help set the mood.

Although she is by now an expert at staging concert versions of “Carmina Burana,” Dawson said it’s always a challenging piece. She explained that “the pronunciation is extremely difficult. The text is in Latin, but it’s the German pronunciation of Latin, and that affects how the notes are handled.”

Columbia Pro Cantare performs “Carmina Burana” on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. Tickets are $23, $20 for seniors and students, in advance, $2 more at the door; $10 for children 15 and under. There is a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. Call 410-799-9321 or go to

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